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With politicians on its side, pipeline company ratchets up intimidation campaign

New Greenpeace report highlights extreme measures taken by pipeline company.

Kelcy Warren, chief executive of Energy Transfer Partners. CREDIT: CBS This Morning/Screenshot
Kelcy Warren, chief executive of Energy Transfer Partners. CREDIT: CBS This Morning/Screenshot

Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the company behind some of the most controversial and environmentally destructive pipelines in the nation, is not backing away from its effort to scare critics into silence.

ETP continues to use litigation and private security forces as a means of intimidation against opponents of its projects. Last Monday, an ETP security team reportedly sank two boats carrying about 15 peaceful protesters and members of the media at a Bayou Bridge Pipeline construction site in Louisiana. All of the boats’ passengers made it to shore before the boats sank.

In a new report, the environmental group Greenpeace points out that ETP’s aggressive stance against public protest is occurring as state and federal officials push anti-protest bills. Several of these bills target individuals protesting infrastructure in places where ETP is currently building pipelines.

Legislative efforts at the state and federal levels have been lopsided in favor of the fossil fuel industry, specifically bills supported by fossil fuel companies and designed to punish pipeline protesters. No bills have been introduced to protect the rights of anti-fossil activists engaging in protests.

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“Unfortunately, the people impacted by these laws and the movement that supports them don’t have the same lobbying resources that front groups like ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council] can deploy to push for a passage of such laws,” Greenpeace USA staff attorney Maggie Ellinger-Locke said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress. “Corporate money in politics has created a great imbalance in power that favors special interests over the rights of the people.”

In January, the Public Accountability Initiative, a nonprofit group that researches political and corporate power, released a report highlighting the banks and political players profiting from the Bayou Bridge Pipeline as well as the influence operation created to get the pipeline project built.

The report’s author, PAI senior research analyst Rob Galbraith, told ThinkProgress on Monday that lawmakers often view oil and gas businesses as important constituents due to the considerable amount the companies and their executives spend on political influence and the central role fossil energy plays in the economy.

“This is especially true in states like Louisiana and Pennsylvania, where the fossil fuel industry has an especially significant presence,” Galbraith said.

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In response to the Greenpeace report, ETP said, “We all have the right to protest and voice our opinions, but we don’t have the right to break the law.”

The company noted it has security at its construction sites for the safety of its assets, its employees, and those who live and work in the area.

“We have an obligation to our shareholders, partners, stakeholders, and employees to stand up to those who cross the line with the intent to impose harm on our company — financial or otherwise,” ETP spokesperson Vicki Granado said Monday in an email to ThinkProgress. “We take the obligation seriously and look to our country’s legal system for support when necessary.”

In 2017, ETP filed a federal lawsuit against Greenpeace and other environmental activists who helped organize protests against the company’s Dakota Access Pipeline. The lawsuit accused protesters of fraud, racketeering, and inciting terrorism, alleging that the actions of these environmental groups caused “enormous harm to people and property along the pipeline’s route.”

In his crusade against protesters, ETP chief executive Kelcy Warren has called on pipeline protesters to be removed from the “gene pool.” Warren was referring to incidents of vandalism against the Dakota Access pipeline in which someone allegedly burned a hole through an empty section of pipe.

And in 2017, Warren said he was “baffled” that federal regulators had accused his company of spilling drilling waste water in Ohio — damaging pristine wetlands — during the construction of the Rover natural gas pipeline.

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State officials and lawmakers have welcomed the company’s plans to build new pipelines. Residents and property owners, on the other hand, have been treated as second-class citizens by the company and state officials.

“Energy Transfer does not have plans to slow down its operations despite ongoing conflict on the ground and lasting controversy,” the Greenpeace report says. “Furthermore, the company has not made significant public moves regarding its policies, decision making, or personnel, to show positive changes to its corporate behavior.”

For years, ETP and its subsidiaries have displayed an “alarming” track record of violence against protesters, spills, and safety violations on pipeline sites, according to the report. In 2016, the company joined with police in North Dakota to suppress opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline project.

As protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline were winding down, ETP’s proposed Bayou Bridge oil pipeline became a new flash point. The 162-mile oil pipeline is proposed to carry 280,000 barrels of crude oil per day through 11 Louisiana parishes and more than 700 acres of fragile wetlands, and watersheds that supply drinking water for up to 300,000 people.

Prior to last week’s incident that led to the sinking of two boats, there have been accounts of private security and law enforcement targeting and arresting activists peacefully engaging in forms of legitimate public protest in Louisiana.

A Louisiana measure known as the “critical infrastructure” law, H.B. 722, went into effect on August 1 and has already been used to arrest more than a dozen protesters opposing ETP’s Bayou Bridge pipeline.

On August 9, three demonstrators were pulled from their kayaks and arrested under this new law. The individuals were kayaking through public waterways near the Bayou Bridge construction site when they were detained and arrested.

On Friday, protesters locked themselves to gates at the entrance of Warren’s residence in Dallas, Texas, demanding the company provide an evacuation route for the African American community of St. James, Louisiana, where the the Bayou Bridge Pipeline and Dakota Access Pipeline will connect.

The community of St. James lies in the heart of what is dubbed “Cancer Alley,” where cancer rates among residents is far higher than the average due to the toxic infrastructure of chemical plants, refineries, and pipeline export facilities.

In Pennsylvania, ETP subsidiary Sunoco also is building the Mariner East 2 natural gas pipeline, a project that has resulted in a long list of environmental violations since construction began in February 2017. Last week, Sunoco pushed back the anticipated completion date for the Mariner East 2 project until the end of 2020 due to changes in plans for the entire pipeline.

Ellen Gerhart, a private property owner on the Mariner East pipeline route and retired schoolteacher, has challenged ETP’s use of her family’s property, including filing a federal lawsuit in 2017 against Sunoco and others over violating her constitutional rights. Gerhart was arrested, jailed, tried, and sentenced this summer after facing a number of civil and criminal allegations by the company.

Gerhart, who was released from prison last month after serving two months, attended ETP’s special unitholders’ meeting in Dallas last week to protest how the company has treated her and other people along its pipeline project routes across the country.

In an interview with ThinkProgress, Gerhart said Monday that she tries to view the escalation of tactics by ETP against protesters in a positive light — “that what we’re doing must be working.”

ETP contractors have already cleared 200 trees off Gerhart’s property in rural Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania to make way for the Mariner East 2 pipeline. Pipeline companies “try to bully people and expect them to back down,” said Gerhart, who pledged not to give up fighting construction of the pipeline project on her family’s property.

The original version of the Greenpeace report, released earlier this year, covered a handful of tactics the company has used against individuals and organizations opposing its pipelines, including the use of litigation, injunctions, eminent domain, favoring harsher punishment for protesters, and aggressive security measures.

“The net impact has created unsettling and harsher environment for those opposing pipelines,” the report says.

While ETP and other pipeline developers are experiencing some success in state legislatures, it’s been a different story in the courts.

ETP ran into a setback in its lawsuits against environmental groups earlier this year. On July 25, a federal judge dismissed the company’s complaint against the Dutch nonprofit BankTrack. The judge also issued an order requiring ETP to file an amended complaint in order to avoid dismissal of its lawsuit against Greenpeace entities.

Energy Transfer filed its first amended complaint on August 6, which did not provide further details requested by the judge. Instead, ETP expanded its legal attack on individuals to events unrelated to the original allegations.

Unlike the initial filing, ETP’s amended complaint tried to tie in events related to its Mariner East 2 pipeline and Bayou Bridge Pipeline. Though opposition to these projects is completely unrelated to the events at Standing Rock, ETP expanded its attacks on local activism in Pennsylvania and Louisiana, where there has been mounting opposition to pipeline construction.

“By including other projects in the lawsuit originally related only to DAPL,” Greenpeace says in the report, “the company is making it clear that its views and tactics have not evolved since 2016, when it earned widespread condemnation.”